I spent 18 years of my early years as an actress in regional theater. My forte was musical comedy without the dance. I was only a double threat: I could sing and I could act and I was usually the go-to actress for the comedic bimbo role. However, I couldn’t learn choreography quickly and once I learned it, I wasn’t very good at it. Anyway, someone once asked me where I first got my start as an actress and it took me some time to map it all out.I wasn’t following in anyone’s footsteps – there were and still are no other actors in either side of my family. I thought back to my earliest memory of acting and I finally remembered. It was torture.
I was a shy bookworm and a frighteningly big-for-my-age third-grade Air Force brat living in Tokyo, Japan. My mother, father and I moved to the area only two months before and my outgoing and extremely self-confident mother was somewhat frustrated by my introverted nature. I would have been quite happy if I could have gone through life as the invisible child. Although I should have known better, I made the mistake of telling my mother that my new school would be observing Halloween by decorating the school with orange-and-black-everything and all the students were expected to wear costumes. I should have, however, stopped short of telling her about the costume contest. My mother's eyes turned from their normal piercing black-brown to scary envy-green when I casually mentioned there'd be many prizes: best in each room, grade, most creative, scariest, funniest and best overall -- kind of like the Tony awards.Mother asked me what I wanted to "be" and suddenly visions of an elegant medieval princess or a twirling ballerina or anything bathed in chiffon, organza and sequins came to mind. "Dear," Mother announced, "You're too tall and clumsy for any of that." Eager that I make LOTS of friends and win prizes, my mother decided I would be a turtle. Not just a common, garden-variety turtle. No-no-no. I would be a snapping turtle, complete with 3-diminsional shell, webbed feet, headpiece, full-face make-up and snapping beak. As I recall I even had a piece of lettuce hanging out of the corner of my mouth.
My life was not my own and I reluctantly complied with the endless fittings and adjustments needed to create a living, breathing turtle masterpiece on my body. While I couldn't tell my mother, I was convinced the costume made me look like a kind of turtle-Godzilla. My mother, the cleverest, most creative woman in the world, had researched and recreated the actual color and pattern of a snapping turtle shell. She designed the costume so realistically that I could lie on my stomach, pull in my arms, legs and head completely inside the shell -- just like a real turtle. Of course, once in that position, I could not get up without assistance from several hefty adults. I had to practice the move several times – my mom thinking I could ask a few classmates to help me up. That’s when I knew my mother lived in an alternate universe. There was no doubt in my mind that if I demonstrated the costume’s realistic functionality in front of my “classmates”, I would have been lucky if no one called the Nippon-maru whaling ship.
The Halloween-from-Hell Day arrived and I tried to fake illness to avoid what I knew would be the most humiliating day of my life. My mother, well aware of my lack of enthusiasm, was not bamboozled by my fake afflictions, blazing toothache, gurgling stomach, oozing ear or fatal blisters -- the costume would be unveiled with me in it.
Normally, I took the school bus to school, but on this excruciating day, Mother drove me to school -- just to make sure I wouldn't ditch the costume on the way to school or somehow run away to Hong Kong. We got to school early so she could help me with the costume and make-up. We went into a bathroom and began the dressing ceremony, like preparing for a kabuki play. There were black tights, black turtleneck tee shirt, black gloves and socks with the fingers sewn together and modified with little turtle claws and a hood that covered my neck and hair. The green base made-up was greasy and the beak pinched my nose and made me sound like a stuffed-up Jerry Lewis when I spoke. Mother admonished me not to eat anything because the makeup would wear off. The shell was four feet long, two and a half feet wide and eighteen inches deep. It encompassed my torso from the nape of my neck to my knees and I could not sit down or go to the bathroom while I wore it unless I completely stripped down to one layer short of underwear.
Finally, Mother told me I was ready to reveal myself and I reluctantly lumbered into the already full classroom. She left me just outside the closed classroom door and threw a hand kiss to me as she blithely walked away. Halfway down the hall she turned around and “shooed” me toward the door. I slowly turned the doorknob like a scene from a scary movie. As the door swung open it became almost instantly clear that my classmates would not, as my mother had assured me, embrace me into their third-grade world of the "cool" and "popular." Instead, I became a kind of "Elephant Girl", a monstrous spectacle of aboriginal proportions. No one recognized me. I was like nothing they'd ever seen before, part human, part amphibian, part indigenous Jurassic Park creature. Some children screamed. Other's said, "What's that?" with the unique verbal sneer only a 9-year old can muster. I heard my teacher gasp and I thought she was going to faint at the sight of me in her doorway -- until she began to laugh. Not satisfied, she told the class, "Principal Reiner HAS to see this. I'll be right back." and she was gone. Within a millisecond of her departure, the other students swarmed over me like flies on a carcass. Someone grabbed an arm and spun me around like a wobbling weeble. In a flurry of bee-hive-like activity, my feet went out from under me and I was on my back. The only thing I could do was wave my legs and arms around in circles, bob my head up and down and make a feeble "Nnnnfff nffff" sound as I tried to right myself. Mercifully, the teacher and Principal Reiner returned just before I had a stroke. They looked down in either astonishment or horror, at what had been left just inside the classroom doorstep. Once I was upright again, I stood for the rest of the day, like some pre-pubescent female hunchback of Notre Dame, the center of everyone's ridicule and disgust.
The main event of the day, "costumes on parade" was a kind of single-file forced march of students around the schoolyard in front of the school staff, who judged the costumes. At one point, a fellow third-grader dressed as a wizard broke ranks and ran up next to me waving his magic wand and threatened to change me into a frog. I prayed the boy was a real wizard. Conspicuously taller than the rest, I was a solitary, moping, shuffling, very unhappy figure of a little girl buried alive within a faux snapping turtle, praying I might somehow vaporize. The parade came to a halt and after a short delay, the principal instructed the children to sit down in place so the contest winners could be announced. All the children sat down in place -- except me -- and I was not about to lie down in the turtle position again. I knew if I went down, my vulture-peers would have taken the opportunity to dismember me like the piranha I knew them to be.
Circumstances seriously conspired against me and it just got worse. If I had to dress up, I just wanted to be a sweet, feminine ballerina or a lovely princess -- something that reflected who I felt I really was or wanted to be. Instead, I was forced to be a nasty, ugly amphibian with no redeeming, endearing qualities. As I stood in my diabolical costume on that October afternoon, desperate to go to the bathroom, I heard my name called to receive the prize for best costume in my classroom. I heard my name called again and again: best costume in the third grade, scariest costume, funniest costume, most creative and best overall. Each award, a beautiful blue, white, red, green, yellow ribbon, emblazoned with a huge gold “1” in glitter. For someone unused to attention, let alone awards, each ribbon trophy was horrifyingly dazzling. I heard the rustling, ever-rising discontent amongst the un-rewarded students. Each award was a badge of mortification as I waddled up to receive it. Only the teachers applauded and smiled. The rest intently glared at me as if to conger spontaneous combustion with their laser looks. I was a princess trapped in a turtle costume.
I turned the ribbons over to my mother as soon as she picked me up. When I got home and I couldn't get out of the green make-up fast enough while my mother carefully packed the costume for "the next time." Mom built the costume to "grow" with me over the next 3 years.
One of the teachers, on that Halloween Day, was active in our church youth drama group. She was so enthralled by the snapping turtle costume that she re-wrote the children's Christmas play and changed one of the adoring sheep in Christ's manger to a snapping turtle. She must have been familiar with a King Barnum and Bailey version of the bible, because an adoring snapping turtle definitely wasn't in my King James version. My mother, a member of the church choir, would not loan the costume to the youth group’s play without the child for whom it had been created. I realize now my mother must have been a shrewd theatrical agent in a former life. I was cast as the lovably cantankerous snapping turtle in attendance at the birth of Christ. My picture was in the paper. People took photographs of the amazing child actor and costume. There was even an article in the base paper about the unusual interpretation of the adoration of the Christ child, complete with a cast photo. By the time the new year rolled around I started to enjoy the attention, although I was still bumblingly shy. The following Easter the same twisted teacher wrote another children's play that included her favorite costume, the grouchy snapping turtle, alerting Mary and the neighborhood beasts to Christ’s resurrection. I became notorious among adults for my portrayal, several years in a row, of a dour, crotchety, snapping turtle. It was, unfortunately, a long dry spell without playmates. I wanted to be a princess or a ballerina, something inconspicuous. But my mother and her irrepressible creativity would not be denied -- her child would be... an actress!